“Look me in the eye.” (No.)

I guess I don’t understand the preoccupation with eye contact in western culture.

In certain Asian cultures, it is customary to bow (which I vastly prefer, as opposed to attempting to yank someone’s wrist out of its socket.  But I digress.  This is about eye contact).

It is also customary in those same Asian cultures not to make eye contact while bowing heads toward each other.  To do so is a sign of disrespect, as though you don’t trust the other person not to pull a fast one on you.  Never taking your eyes off of them, especially while greeting them or meeting them for the first time, essentially sends them the message that you’re suspicious of them from the get-go (Texan for “from the start/beginning”).

Not exactly a way to endear oneself to the other person, in that culture.  Not a surefire way to start off on the right foot.

Even though I’m from the west, I tend to operate much like those across the Pacific pond.

I’m notoriously averse to eye contact.

The idea that if one does not make eye contact, then they must be lying or otherwise hiding something, is a stubborn myth that won’t die with any dignity; our society just keeps it around and around.

But over 40 years of research has proven that it is indeed a myth.  I can lie to someone’s face while looking at them just as easily as I can while looking away (although I don’t lie well in either instance).

And just because I’m looking away doesn’t mean I’m lying or hiding anything.

And I usually do look away.

I find making eye contact with someone incredibly uncomfortable.

It makes me feel naked.  I describe it to neurotypical people as the feeling they get when they’re up on a stage, in a room full of people, with all eyes on them.  Or perhaps how they feel when they know they’re being videotaped.  (This is assuming they’re not the attention-seeking type of extrovert, of course.)

It makes me feel like all eyes are on me – not just yours.

It’s a shy, self-conscious “I’d rather you not look at me” feeling.  It feels scrutinizing, potentially judging.  Like you’re being graded, evaluated, or sized up.

What goes through the other person’s mind?  What kind of information are they getting from my eyes?  What can they see?  How do they plan to use the information they get?

It makes me feel like they have the advantage.  They’re cheating.

I can’t get the same information by looking into their eyes that they can when looking into mine.  The balance of power is tilted in their favor.  I must have always known that on some instinctual level, because I’ve always shied away from staring into someone’s eyes.

I can’t get to know them like they can me.  I feel powerless, almost at their mercy.

I also find it intrusive, and sometimes, even semi-rude.  I know they’re not trying to be.  I know they’re just following the rules of the social game of the neurotypical world.  Rules of which I never received a copy or committed to memory.  After all, I didn’t know that we’d be tested on them.

But I am, every day.  Someone looking down might be misunderstood to be depressed, so after fielding the unsolicited comments from other people for too many years, I learned to at least look ahead, at eye level, lest anyone intrude on my thoughts.  Courtesy would call for leaving someone alone who appeared absorbed in thought, a natural signal of which could be to look down.  But nope, some people are flat-out intrusive, and they may not consider the fact that it’s not their place to be Mood Police.

It could be considered to be a semi-kind gesture to reach out to someone who appears to be in a sad place, but the problem with the reality is that those people aren’t necessarily interested in improving someone’s life; it’s not like they’re going to put down what they’re doing and say, “oh, you’re feeling depressed?  Here, let me call someone for you.”

So why do some people say these things?  I think it’s because they feel uncomfortable if those around them don’t look happy, so they say things like, “smile”, “cheer up”, and so on, in order to feel like they’ve satisfied some social obligation.

Eye contact, however, does not come naturally to me.  It’s not something I do when I’m happy-go-lucky.

It might, however, be something I do when I’m preparing to go to verbal war.

Making contact, after all, is what animals (and humans are indeed members of the animal kingdom) do when they’re stalking prey.

I’m not anyone’s prey, and I prefer not to be stalked, TYVM.

Therefore, when someone makes eye contact with me, it makes me feel a sense of being threatened.  My subconscious sends my nervous system (probably the amygdala) the signal that there’s a potential threat looming in my periphery (or even in my immediate space).  And the alarm bells start going off.  My anxiety shoots through the roof.

Of course, my prefrontal cortex tries to calm down the shrieking sirens in my head, because most human beings are not, of course, out to get me.  There’s a disconnect between my logical brain and my “lizard brain”, the limbic system that houses the amygdala.

None of this had ever been apparent to me before, however, so as my prefrontal cortex and my amygdala duked it out inside my head, I was only vaguely aware of the discomfort I felt.  It registered in my brain as a sort of timid self-consciousness.

When someone looks into my eyes, it feels like I’m being stared at, or even stared down.  It makes me feel vulnerable.

I don’t want to feel like I’m on stage, in front of a camera, while my every move passes through the watchful lenses of potential judgment and scrutiny.  It doesn’t matter that it’s only one person who’s looking at me; it feels like a thousand.

I don’t want to be intruded upon, my trains of thought derailed, my thoughts broken into, like a home burglar would enter a residence uninvited.  I’m not interested in “snapping to” or engaging with strangers around me.  If I am interested, I’ll make a move of my own.  I’m a big girl.

I don’t want to feel stared down, sized up, or stalked as prey.

I don’t want anyone else to have the upper hand when interacting with me.  The other person already has so many upper hands as it is.

I don’t want to feel even more vulnerable than I already do.  I don’t want to feel like I’m under evaluation.  What I’m doing, if I’m doing it alone without involving anyone else, is my business.

I’m not lying or hiding anything if I don’t stare at someone.  My looking away doesn’t carry any hidden meaning or covert message, other than that I don’t want to stare at anyone, nor do I want to feel like they’re staring at me.

The world simply needs to mind its own business more often.  It needs to drop the weird assumptions.  Nations update and amend their rules from time to time; social society should do the same. 🙂


Related Posts:

Eye Contact and Shaking Hands Can Be Hard For Asperger’s / Autistic People ~ July 8, 2016

Unwritten Rules, Expectations, and Faux Pas [My Aspie Life] ~ February 18, 2017

Three Glances ~ December 5, 2016

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47 Comments

  1. Eye contact was one of the first indicators to me I was on the spectrum. A couple of therapists working with my kids were pressing for them to learn it and my first thought was, “No! I hate it myself. It’s invasive.I will never make them do that!” Articulating that to the therapists was tougher at the time, but, eventually, they got the message. You perfectly described my thoughts here. Thank you! 😊

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Oh wow! I love learning how people came to realize that they might be on the spectrum; what an interesting scenario! Thank you for sharing your story 😊. Even without having kids myself, I can totally relate 😘💖💜

      Liked by 2 people

  2. As a non-autistic person, I can identify with you on this subject. Even in some western areas, eye contact can be taken as a sign of either aggression or sexual interest, and so one does not generally make sustained contact unless appropriate. This can become a problem when moving to an area with different body language interpretations. As you said, there is a danger of being seen as dishonest, rude, or mentally disturbed. To say this is frustrating is beyond inadequate. So great to know I’m not alone. Many thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Oh, I so know the feeling.. Sometimes I wish I was different but maybe it’s time for the social norms to change (at least a little). And I wish introverts are better understood and not considered as “less than”. We just need to keep talking about these things and raise the awareness.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. CONCURRING OVER HERE!!!! I remember in high school when someone first called attention to my lack of eye contact. I explained the anxiety it caused as best I could, and my close friend suggested looking at something close to an interlocutor’s eyes. Well, eventually I got called out for always staring at foreheads. Now almost 36, I’ve gotten better at making more eye contact, but it’s always uncomfortable, and I’m consistently assumed to be a liar or severely depressed because of my atypical body language.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for adding your voice! So true; you’re definitely not alone 😊. Wow, someone could tell that you were looking at their forehead? Interesting! I wonder if people have noticed the same thing with me but just haven’t said anything about it yet 😳😱😂💞

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, it was a good friend who said something because she thought it was because she had something stuck to her lol. After that, I started to look at multiple spots in rotation. Mostly noses, but people start rubbing their noses like they think I’m staring at a foreign object lol

        Liked by 2 people

        1. That works 😊. Great strategy! 👏🏼👏🏼. Yep, I do something similar; foreheads, noses, mouths, even eyebrows 👍🏼. Whoops, I never paid attention to whether or not they started rubbing their noses or cheeks or anything lol 😂. I guess I’d better start doing that 😉❤️

          Liked by 2 people

  5. I don’t necessarily hate looking someone in the eye, but I’m not good at it. After a few decades of practice I can fake it reasonably well, but it’s draining. I have to remember to look at someone when they’re talking to me, but not for too long because that’s staring (and creepy apparently).

    Liked by 3 people

  6. The town I grew up in was HIGHLY extroverted. We were expected to make eye contact all the time. I liken it to eating disgusting vegetables: i do it because I have to, so I hold my breath, pinch my nose, and hope for the best.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Omg that’s an *awesome* way of putting it!! Yes yes!! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼🙌🏼

      Like

  7. Reading this makes me think of the autistic in the classroom and how they might be “looking like” they are not paying attention. Yet, I learned that my son couldn’t look and listen at the same time. It was overstimulating for him.
    In any case, thank you for sharing your perspective. Awareness can bring understanding and more love and peace in this world.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Amen, girl! Yep, people thought that about me as well. Turns out that I can pay better attention when I’m not having to concentrate on looking at them. Overstimulating is an excellent way to say it 😊❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  8. i find it powerful and intense. thus if im attracted to someone (or if i wish to be influential) i will try to make eye contact. it isnt fair to make it a requirement– and it is possible to be influential without it. writers can be very influential with only words– how often to you look at the person whose book or article youre reading?

    i often look away because it makes it easier to stay organized about what im saying to a person. so if your time is valuable, neurotypicals– let people look where they need to while talking. it will save you a lot of time and patience, if you are reasonable enough. another pedantic/mildly interesting quibble with my favorite texan on earth: sometimes bowing involves eye contact, depending on context. obviously the head has to be raised slightly for that to be possible, but im sure any of your yoga friends can do it. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is true 😊. All of it 💞. And yep, you bring up a great point that some bowing does involve eye contact 😊💖

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Being partially deaf, I was taught lip reading when I was 7 or 8. I look at people’s mouths without thinking about it. Eyes, mouth, eyes, mouth…. 👀💋👀💋 Then after King Ben came along, I got even further from the eye contact thing, he didn’t like it, obviously. Now I’m an NT that finds eye contact uncomfortable. 😕 It didn’t used to bother me at all.💞😎

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, interesting! ❤️. I’ve lost a lot of hearing over the years, and I’ve had to learn to do a little lip-reading without realizing it 😊. I’m starting to wonder if other physical disabilities can induce certain spectrum traits? Between your experience and my partner’s (he’s legally blind), I’m noticing a few parallels 😊😘💖

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know if it a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand it’s like, look NT people do all these things too, it’s not weird or wrong. On the other hand, it’s feels like diminishing or further marginalizing the autistic experience. I guess intent has a role in it but….I dunno. I don’t have all the answers (yet😝) 🌹💗🌻😎

        Liked by 1 person

      2. i read lips a little, because sometimes theres so much noise i cant hear people. i tend to do 100 on hearing tests, but that factoid probably wont do into my 50s.

        i met some people at a noisy place recently, and one complained that i was too loud, because i couldnt hear a ****ing thing over the din. so i was a little loud at the person i was talking to. (some third person complained i was loud.) so i got my things and said “thats ok, i was just leaving.”

        they felt bad (you know what? good– i was doing everything i could to interact with these people, singling me out was absurd, everyone was ****ing noisy as ****) and i walked out.

        as they called i put up my hand (not a finger) and said “no– s’alright!” but i didnt turn around. i hang out with nts all day. these were the sort of ones that start every thought with some awful tripe like “could we just…” no, *we* ****ing couldnt. only group of people i know like that. and im only staying in touch with one of them, who isnt like that at all.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I would’ve given them the finger. The more I interact with people face to face, the happier I am in my decision to be a hermit. It’s kind of sad because I’m a fun person but too many jerks out there and it’s a drain on energy I don’t have.

          Liked by 2 people

  10. i so hate the eye contact dance.
    my usual weapons to that: wearing dark or colored shades (prescription). listening to stuff eyes closed (“my eyes hurt”), or when feeling particularly ballsy or annoyed, just tell them that i don’t really have any central vision so i can’t see them if i look at them.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I think eye contact is one of many differences that ableist ppl use in the workplace. The worst part is ableism is not being addressed in all but a fraction of situations. The would be better for everyone to address ableism since just about everyone will deal with some type of ableism during their life.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely! It’s such a simple concept with such a broad audience that it would only help the whole world if everyone could simply become more aware and more respectful in general 😊❤️

      Like

  12. This need for eye contact probably came about because a sign of some sort that the other was paying attention to what you were saying to them was needed.. After all, there’s nothing worse than feeling like the other isn’t listening to you (specially if what you’re imparting is important to you) – we nt’s in particular use eye contact as a sign the other is listening to what you say.

    And while we’re on THAT subject (listening to others) – just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I haven’t listened to you. My Asperger’s son does this all the time – when I’ve heard him, listened fully to what he’s said and can even understand totally where he’s coming from position wise but don’t agree with him – he assumes I haven’t listened to him. And I find that to be disrespectful of me.

    And – at the end of the day – we’re ALL looking for respect for us as individuals and validation of ourselves from our fellow man – irrespective of our diversity form be it neuro, sexual or gender.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, I actually agree with what you said 😊. I’m not sure we disagree; the way I see it, I think we’re just coming from opposite ends of the Neuro-bridge is all 😊. The funny part is, I can relate to what you said. I can’t make eye contact very well while I’m doing the talking, but I can take or leave eye contact while I’m listening; I’ll hear them just the same, with equal attention 😊. The interesting thing is, if they don’t look at me while I’m the one talking, I feel similar to what you described (!) 😉. One of my RDOS nodes (it’s one of the accepted Aspie/autism tests) actually shows me as half-neurotypical in one area – I think it’s communication lol. Since I’m Aspie in every other way, though, I can see both sides of the NT-ND bridge on that one 😉💞💙

      Like

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